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The Rift Valley Research Network: An Introduction

On the ELAR blog this week, ELDP grantees and ELAR depositors Andrew Harvey and Richard Griscom give an introduction to the Rift Valley Research Network, a group of researchers interested in the linguistic and cultural diversity of the Rift Valley. The Research Network was established to make it easier to share research, to help form new collaborations, and to provide a space to learn from each other.

Map of the Tanzanian Rift Valley Area (Kießling, Mous, and Nurse 2008:3). Map by Carla Butz.
Map of the Tanzanian Rift Valley Area (Kießling, Mous, and Nurse 2008:3). Map by Carla Butz.

Please could you give an introduction to the Rift Valley itself, including its peoples, languages and cultures?

The Tanzanian Rift Valley Area, first proposed by Roland Kießling, Maarten Mous, and Derek Nurse in 2008 is a linguistic and cultural area which occupies much of the eastern branch of the East African Rift in Tanzania.

It is unique in that it is the only place on the African continent in which all four of the major African language phyla have been in contact for a long time. The languages of interest include: Alagwa, Burunge, Gorwaa, and Iraqw (Afroasiatic: South Cushitic); Ihanzu, Kimbu, Mbugwe, Nyaturu, Nyilamba, Rangi (Niger-Congo: Bantu); the multiple Datooga dialects (Nilotic: Southern Nilotic), Sandawe (possibly Khoe-Kwadi), and Hadza (isolate).

Kießling, Mous, and Nurse hypothesize that, because of being in close contact over many centuries, these languages have come to influence each others’ grammar, resulting in several similar grammatical features that have developed among all or most of these languages. Other languages worth consideration (but whose status within the linguistic area are less clear) are the extinct languages Asaax, Kw’adza (probably South Cushitic), the highly dispersed and poorly understood “Dorobo” languages (genetic affiliations unknown), the more recently present Maasai varieties (Nilotic: East Nilotic), as well as Tanzania’s national language, Swahili (Niger-Congo: Bantu).

Culturally, the Tanzanian Rift Valley Area is both rich and diverse, with some ethnic groups structuring their daily lives around agriculture, others pastoralism, and still others hunting and gathering. Indigenous faiths, musics, foodways, and linguistic arts are either still practiced or remembered, lending great insight and meaning into peoples’ traditional beliefs, social structures, and visions of the world.

Recently (in some cases little more than a century ago), aspects of modern Tanzanian culture (including the Swahili language, government schooling, and new faiths such as Christianity and Islam) have become established in the region – this results in a both new dynamism for existing practices, but also existential questions for the peoples and cultures of the Rift Valley Area: many languages are either threatened or endangered.

Please give us an introduction to the Rift Valley Network and its aims

The Rift Valley Network is made up of a small group of linguists who are conducting research or plan to conduct research focusing on the languages of the Rift Valley.

Its central aim is to encourage the development of a ‘Riftology’ that seeks to understand the languages, histories, and cultures of the Area, and that places its speaker communities at the centre of this project. This includes supporting the development of large, representative documentations of Rift Valley languages (some of which are hosted as part of the ELAR archive, including Richard Griscom’s documentation of Isimjeeg DatoogaAndrew Harvey’s documentation of Gorwaa and Alice Mitchell’s documentation of Gisamjeega and Barabaiga Datooga; further supporting linguistic work (descriptive, theoretical, anthropological, etc.) on the languages of the Area or on the Area in general; and developing a community of practice which encourages high-quality, collaborative work in the Rift Valley from which both science and local communities benefit.

Was there a particular motivation behind the setting up of the network and what were your motivations for getting involved?

Linguists working on the languages of the Tanzanian Rift Valley have, in the past, relied on loose networks of colleagues in order to advance our understanding of the Area: this was efficient when the number of linguists was relatively small. Today’s ‘Riftologists’ are not only more numerous, but are also from all over the world, and include both tenured professors, early career researchers, graduate students, as well as local activists working on their mother tongues.

Having reached this ‘critical mass’, the benefits of developing structures that aided research, communication, and development of scholarly outputs became clear. The languages of the Tanzanian Rift Valley are simply too numerous and too diverse for any single linguist to develop a comprehensive understanding of – as such, and to begin addressing the bigger questions of the Area, working together is the only way forward.

What has been the positive impact of the network so far? Can you share anything that the network is working on or discussing at the moment?

The first discussions about forming a Rift Valley Network happened less than six months ago, so impacts remain modest, as well as principally restricted to successes in building the Network itself. With that said, among linguists working in the Tanzanian Rift, there has been great interest in the project, with a membership of over thirty individuals. The Network has also been operating a fortnightly mailing list communicating new research outputs, questions, and other news. More recently, the Rift Valley Webinar Series has been launched, in which Network members can share their research with other members in live presentations through video conferencing software.

Snapshot of a Rift Valley Network fortnightly mailout
Snapshot of a Rift Valley Network fortnightly mailout

What are your future plans?

The Network is a tool to help increase the capacity its members, as such, its future direction will depend on the input and ideas of the linguists and local language activists of the Tanzanian Rift Valley Area. Medium-term plans include helping members access the considerable volume of literature that exist on the languages, cultures, and histories of the Rift Valley Area, as well as holding a face-to-face workshop sometime within the next twelve months.

How can we find out more or get in touch with you?

Website: https://riftvalleynetwork.weebly.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/RiftValleyNetwork/

Email: riftvalleynetwork@gmail.com

Thank you to Andrew and Richard for telling us more about the Rift Valley Network!

For more on language documentation and research in Tanzania, read Richard’s previous ELAR blog post on a community event on language documentation and endangerment. This was organised by Richard, Andrew and R. Lindfield, a SOAS undergraduate student interested in Tanzanian languages and language dynamics.

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